Politically thinking: GOP seeks alternative to Romney

Last week’s Republican presidential candidates’ debate in New Hampshire was the kick-off to a campaign that will end in August 2012 in Tampa, when the GOP nominates its candidate to oppose President Obama’s bid for re-election. Although the Republican contest is still in its very early days, some key themes of the campaign are emerging.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney leads in polls among prospective Republican primary voters, and runs close to Obama in general election trial heats. However, Romney’s poll numbers have not brought him respect among Republican establishment figures such as the pundits who appear on Fox News or write for The Wall Street Journal editorial page. To many orthodox Republicans, the party must find an alternative to Romney within the next few months.
Conservatives’ fundamental problem with Romney is the health care reform he signed as governor of Massachusetts. Like Obama’s health care bill, the Massachusetts law requires individuals to carry health insurance coverage. With “repeal Obamacare” a rallying cry among the Republican faithful, many GOP leaders find Romney anathema, especially after the president had positive things to say about the Massachusetts health care system.
Other conservatives argue that Romney’s statements that human activity may have something to do with climate change put him outside the pale of acceptable Republican opinion. Still others believe that Romney’s history of changing positions on issues makes him vulnerable to attack ads, both in the primaries and the general election campaign.
Mitt Romney is not a liberal, or even a moderate. He is a traditional business-oriented economic conservative, a type that was once the backbone of the Republican Party. The resistance to Romney’s candidacy among the Republican elite shows how far to the right the GOP has moved in recent years.
The “anyone but Romney” candidate has yet to emerge. Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Chris Christie of New Jersey have all said they are not interested in running for president in 2012. Former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah, who is a candidate, is not acceptable to conservatives, in part because he worked for Obama, as ambassador to China. The campaign of another former governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, was not helped by his underwhelming performance in last week’s debate.
The Republican pundits’ current hope is Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. Perry would certainly have no difficulty getting organized and raising money, even if he were not to enter the race until the fall. What remains to be seen is how the independent voters who will decide the election next November would react to the prospect of the Republicans’ nominating another governor of Texas, just four years after George W. Bush left the White House.
While the Republican elite searches for an alternative to Romney, there have also been important developments on the populist wing of the party. Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who could have won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, as he did in 2008, is not running for president this year. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign is imploding around him, with his entire staff resigning two weeks ago. Sarah Palin’s historically challenged tour of the Northeast did not help her gain credibility as a possible president.
For now, the leading candidate among Republican populists is Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota. An Iowa native with strong appeal to social and religious conservatives, and to Tea Party activists, Bachmann has to be seen as the candidate with the momentum in the Iowa caucuses.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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